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May, Isbell & Lezama
If you want to talk about black STEM...
The place I first learned about black diversity was college. My best friend and I came to the same conclusion. In fact, I can remember the evening that I met him. He, like I, was a black American who was younger than most of his student peers for much of his academic career. He, unlike I, was a double major in electrical engineering and computer science at a top ranked university. I bowed to his brains. We met in his dorm at USC and we were aiming to come up with a name for a conference. By ‘we’ I mean officers from the local chapters of the National Society of Black Engineers. Before I actually went to college for computer science, I had never heard of NSBE. Once I got in, I started to eat, sleep and drink NSBE by the gallon. I proposed the outrageous title of “Engineers of Black Society” and argued that we were a vanguard upon whose wisdom the future of the race depended. He looked at me like I had just had given birth to a live octopus. No. Seriously dude, no way.
I can’t even remember what his alternative theme was, but he won the day. What I cannot forget is he he had the audacity to question my intelligence and sanity. Damn, I thought. He stood up to me. He was right and I stood corrected. I was still in the mode of ‘black unity’, but I soon learned better.
After having held a couple of official positions with NSBE including Head Counselor at the NSBE Region Six Camping Conference, I was elected National Finance Officer. Since I sat as a rep on the Student Finance Committee representing my School of Engineering and Computer Science, I was able to insure that the local NSBE chapter got funded for the bus transportation to and from the inner cities to the local mountains where black academics and professionals in what is now called STEM were able to meet, mentor and hang out with highschool and middle school kids who were underprivileged. It was one of the highlights of my days as an undergrad to help these kids know that not only was there a such thing as JPL in Pasadena, but there were black engineers in management there. Yet it was as National Finance Officer that it was my responsibility to flip the script. In that capacity I helped organizations like JPL know that not only were there thousands of black undergrads in engineering, but many of them like me, were on the Dean’s List. I recall off the top of my head that the average GPA of NSBE members nationwide was somewhere around 3.3, but it was definitely above the national average.
So I wrote the solicitation letters and I found an interesting bifurcation. We essentially had two types of sponsors. One type was most interested in identifying and helping out the first time collegians from poor families. They were dead set on helping in matters of retention. The other type was most interested in what I liked to call our ‘braintrust of heroes’. Make no mistake, that night at USC was not the last time I would be flat busted for thinking I was the smartest guy in the room. So while lots of people liked to debate the very existence of black Americans in the technical fields, I was dealing with a very real clash of interests that was not only reflected in the attitudes of our sponsors, but in the membership itself. As you might imagine, once there was funding in the budgets, there would be debates about what we should spend it on.
Still, I was on the Unity train and I was all in love with the big man on campus profile I attempted to cut, I was involved in other black ops. My girlfriend was vice president of the on campus chapter of the Black Business Association. I pledged the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. So I proposed the ECC, the Executive Central Committee whose purpose was twofold. First it was to raise my profile as master of the universe. Second, it was to create a campus-wide calendar of events so that the 20 odd black clubs, organizations could coordinate and avoid splitting their audiences and thereby maximize their opportunities to be profitable. My megalomania turned out to be a bit too transparent. It was also an exercise in herding cats. Nobody’s schedule was set in stone, or even beer foam.
At one point during the campus politics, a number of complains arose that are typical of the 101 anti-affirmative action arguments we all dealt with, some less emotionally than others. One complaint I took as a compliment, was that per capita, black clubs and organizations were getting funded at a higher rate than others. Another was that since some students were in special retention programs, they should be required to do ‘Peace Corp’ work in the ghettoes they came from. The most insidious suggestion which I objected to most strongly was one I might have backed as a freshman. Why not have all black clubs and organizations funded a standard amount every year guaranteed? Umbrella funding, it was argued, made the most sense since the smaller black clubs wouldn’t suffer relatively speaking as compared to political powerhouses like NSBE whose officers sat on various advisory boards. Yeah, I did. But I liked the variety of black clubs we had.
Black diversity was necessary. I played football with guys from the Rejoice in Jesus club, but I couldn’t stand going to their meetings. Of course I loved going on the field trips and listening to the speakers from the Black Business Association, but I hated the speakers invited by the Black Survival Union. Like any Alpha Phi Alpha man will tell you, the brothers of Kappa Alpha Psi are maniacal playboys. The fierce, dare I say animal loyalty of Omega Psi Phi is truly admirable. On our campus, everybody partied with the Sigmas who made huge amounts of money at their citywide dances. On the other hand, the Friends of Africa made modest nickels and dimes with their farmer’s markets and bake sales. When it came down to it, I was not above abusing slavery metaphors. “One fund means one neck for one rope.” And I didn’t doubt that was what some of the supporters of that idea had in mind. Nor did it surprise me that the president of the Black Survival Union claimed his organization was the natural inheritor of the mantle of black leadership on campus and that it would be his honor to represent all of us and take responsibility for the fund. Over my dead body.
At some point it became pretty obvious to me that unity was doomed. There was no single black community on campus. We partied when we wanted to, if at all, with whom we pleased. We all had our own different majors, strengths and weaknesses. Plenty had no truck with any black clubs or fraternities. We called them GDIs. God damned individuals.
NSBE held its annual national conferences in big hotels in major cities. I first attended on in the new Omni Center in Atlanta. There I was able to meet with Andrew Young, Martin Luther King III, publisher Earl Graves and the singular person of Dick Gregory. The phenomenon of having thousands of young black engineering students in attendance was quite intoxicating in those days before black theme housing and separate graduation ceremonies. At least I felt quite strongly that I would have certainly enjoyed these conferences less if they were held in some downscale or poor black neighborhoods. I’m certain the feeling was identical in the days when the National Brotherhood of Skiers took over major hotels in Lake Tahoe or Vail. Black pride works in strange and mysterious ways, but from my perspective there is nothing but shame in hiding your light under a bushel or accepting second-class citizenship. There is excellence in achievement, but ultimately it’s about the achievement of excellence. I loved my excellent company.
So when I hear about the seriousness with which people with more than a couple neurons to rub together take the idea that math is white, or that STEM should be shutdown, it takes a bit of zen on my part to stop from yelling. I’m not nearly the egotistical bastard I was in my college days that swiftly passed, but I know what it’s like to be an unqualified success. You don’t forget being on the Dean’s List. You don’t forget getting top marks. You also don’t forget that all black Americans aren’t in the same buckets, and you should never forget that they don’t want to be. Those who will jump in the bucket of your choice cannot represent all of us, any more than my megalomania or that of the BSU president can control the single rope. Nevertheless, that’s what’s going on today as the narrative deals with ‘blacks in big tech’.
Before you or anyone should take any of these tales of woe seriously, and certainly before I will give them the time of day, we should hear from three specific individuals who probably should be a bit more famous than they are. All three happen to be friends of mine and each of them had their own unique abilities to keep my ego in check, which is to say they are all brilliant and wonderful people I met along the way. I think they can handle the fame at this point in their careers and I hope they don’t mind me saying so. I make no presumptions about their takes on such matters and that’s all of the hostage talk you’re going to hear from me about further qualifications.
The first person you need to talk to is Michele Lezama. She fills the shoes of the legendary Howard Adams who is a man of universal high regard. He was the man that made it happen for thousands of students. It being getting funded for graduate studies around the country. If I wasn’t so hungry for what I’m hungry for, I might have used a few more years of higher education. But I never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Adams. What I have seen is Michele Lezama sift through curriculum vitae of candidates for the GE Lewis Latimer scholarship and stare my commentary into oblivion. Google tells me there is no such thing, but what Google doesn’t know and what readers of mainstream news don’t know, Michele Lezama does know. I’m sure she’s hooking up student in STEM every day and I guarantee you that she’s doing it in heroic fashion.
The second person you need to talk to is Charles Isbell. Charles is a native son of Atlanta and he has the most extraordinary deadpan humor of just about anyone I know. He’s also wicked smart. He was building bots that passed the Turing test before the dot com era. So when it comes to AI, he has been there and done that. He also is pretty hooked up in terms of the business of getting the most brainy people out into industry. For him, “oh yeah another one of my PhD students is working at Google”, is a kind of boring everyday trivia bite. That being a well beaten path from where he holds court at Georgia Tech. So if you want to talk about what it means to transform a major institution, you could do a lot worse than Dr. Isbell.
The third, but by no means final person you need to talk to about who goes where in STEM is Gary May. I’m always at a loss for words when talking about this man. It is because he appears to be one of those people who decided when he was 12 years old that he is never going to get anything other than straight As for the rest of his life. Without question he is a man of the people and many of them way smarter than me look to him for guidance for life on the other side of the mountain.
These are a few of my old friends from my NSBE days and like many of them and other unusually successful and capable individuals, they are dispersed across the country and around the world. I cannot imagine that anybody is having a discussion worth many beans that don’t take into account what these three individuals know about black Americans in science and technology and what the state of STEM is in this nation. On the other hand, I know them as people and that’s just a small corner of who they are. While I have bothered to put up these serious pictures of them, they’re much more interesting in person. You can get a flavor of the Charles I know for example, from this podcast with Lex Fridman. I suspect that most Americans will take Trevor Noah’s word for it and allow him to represent a ‘mainstream’ opinion we can find the appropriate amount of discomfort in. After all, if we can just improve the life of one poor underprivileged minority with this new narrative, then certainly we can ignore three blips who have helped thousands. After all, who are they?
These days, we don’t think much of dropping a government billion or 50 on some this or that. And like Eric Weinstein, I have come to the conclusion that there aren’t enough grownups running things in America and because of that we are suffering in the leadership department. We have pretended that we don’t have enough domestic technical talent like we pretend all the good black men are shot dead by cops. Lies. I’m also witness to activities like Ray Landis’ Minority Engineering Program and the work of women and men like Rick Ainsworth at UCLA that I know work. I’m just thinking what a beautiful thing it would be if Michele, Charles and Gary were to receive 50 billion. I’d be like Dozer in Matrix. It’s going to be a very exciting time.
Y’all fuss. I’m dreaming.